A lynching scarred this Georgia county. Is it willing to confront its dark past?
From its residents to its schools, the community is divided on how to address Forsyth County’s history of excluding Black people.
CUMMING, Ga. — Driving through present-day Forsyth County is like navigating an American landscape haunted by its history. Centuries-old churches and storied cemeteries carry remnants of past lives, of a Black community vanquished by racial terror. Atop several acres of land sit 20th-century-built homes, housing generations of Forsythians.
The county, located 30 miles north of Atlanta and home to about 235,000 residents, presents itself as an ideal place to live and raise a family. The affluent suburb champions its high-performing public schools, growing diverse community and promise of a better life.
But beneath the surface of this vibrant community is a deep and complex history rooted in hate.
While 1 in 3 residents in Forsyth County are people of color, only about 4.9% of the population is Black, a figure that’s been stagnant for four decades. This is due in large part to a massive racial cleansing that rocked the county in 1912, followed by 75 years when Black people were banned from moving back in.
Now the county is grappling with its failure to fully confront that dark past — a potential impediment to its progress. It's a failure that extends from Forsyth’s schools, where there is no established core curriculum on the events of 1912, to its residents, some of whom are content with how the county is moving forward and others who are hoping for a real reckoning.
“Forsyth County is right on the borderline between Atlanta's influence and rural Georgia,” poet, author and former county resident Patrick Phillips told Yahoo News. “It's also on the border between everything we hope will change about the way the country remembers the past and then another group of people who don't want to talk about any of that.”
Following Reconstruction, the 12 years after the Civil War, Forsyth County was home to about 12,000 residents, including a relatively small but growing population of Black people, dozens of whom were landowners. Newly freed Black Americans were just beginning to confront a world where opportunity and hope were possible.
But in September 1912, everything changed when an 18-year-old white woman named Mae Crow was found beaten, bloodied and unconscious in the Georgia woods under mysterious circumstances. She later died from her injuries, and three young Black men — the only Black people in that part of the county at the time — were accused of raping and murdering her, with little evidence other than a coerced confession from one of them.
As a result, 24-year-old Rob Edwards was arrested and jailed for the crime, and soon afterward was dragged from his cell by a mob of angry white residents. His body was riddled with bullets and beaten with crowbars, then allegedly hitched onto the back of a wagon with a noose around his neck and eventually hanged in the Cumming town square.
People took turns stoning and shooting more bullets at his limp corpse as hundreds of onlookers rejoiced. Two Black teens, Ernest Knox, 16, and Oscar Daniel, 18, were later hanged after expedient one-day trials that led to an onslaught of racial violence and terror toward the county’s Black residents.
By the year’s end, all of the county’s 1,098 Black residents — or 10% of the population — were violently forced out as Black churches were set ablaze, threatening fliers made by white vigilantes were circulated and night riders made life torture for anyone in the community who was not white, particularly its Black sharecroppers and business owners.
Many Black residents who owned homes were unable to sell their properties in enough time, devastating entire families. And in many ways, Black life in the county has never fully recovered.
“I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to have night riders coming through these Black neighborhoods and burning people's houses and forcing them out,” 71-year-old Elon Osby told Yahoo News. Osby, whose grandparents William and Ida Bagley owned over 60 acres of land in Forsyth in 1912 before having to leave it all behind, added: “The fear is unimaginable. But then to leave your land with no opportunity to be compensated for it, that's the next unimaginable thing.”
Today, Osby says, several half-million-dollar subdivision homes sit on the land her grandparents once owned. The family never received anything for it.
A newspaper headline in the Atlanta Constitution around that time read: “Negroes Flee From Forsyth: Enraged White People Are Driving Blacks From County.”
The county remained all white for more than seven decades after the 1912 expulsion, with comprehensive details about the systematic removal of Black residents buried in old articles and history books for decades.
“The white community in Forsyth had successfully kind of buried a lot of this, and there was some knowledge of it as kind of mythic, but they had largely buried their heads in the sand,” said Phillips, who wrote the 2016 book “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America.” The book documents the white supremacist uprising in Forsyth County and how, despite thousands of witnesses of the lynchings of the three men, no one was ever held accountable for their deaths.
But depending on who you talk to now, the specifics of what led to Black residents fleeing vary, as some people seemingly contort their version of the truth into something more savory. Some white residents, whose families go back at least several generations in the county, say the mass exile was partly voluntary.
“There were probably many different scenarios as to why people left,” George Pirkle, a historian with the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County, told Yahoo News. Pirkle’s family in the county dates back to at least the 1830s. He was born there in 1947 and says his first “meaningful” interaction with a Black person didn’t come until he went to college at the University of Georgia nearly two decades later.
“For this exodus that happened, it’s hard to think it was anyone local that was involved in the terrorism, because you wouldn’t want to mess with the economy,” he said. Regardless, he added that “one lynching is a thousand too many.”
A plaque and jar of soil to commemorate the lynching of Edwards sit in the historical society’s library.
Martha McConnell, the society’s co-founder, added that “Forsyth County was the least likely county where you would think there would be a racial incident.”
‘Keep Forsyth white’
It wasn’t until 1987, the 75th anniversary of 1912, that news of the racial cleansing in the community spread across the U.S. That’s when activists, led by Atlanta Councilman Hosea Williams, marched to the city of Cumming to bring awareness to Forsyth's racist history.
But even then, less than 40 years ago, the activists were met with a bevy of white residents chanting the N-word, throwing rocks and waving signs that read "Keep Forsyth white." Eventually, the activists were forced to board their buses and return to Atlanta.
McConnell contends that most of the agitators were outsiders from as far away as Indiana who came into town looking to start trouble. “We couldn’t recognize anyone in those pictures,” she said, noting that members of the historical society went out and wrote down numbers of vehicle licenses that weren’t registered in the county.
Phillips says the hatred among the local white population, both in 1912 and 1987, was widespread.
As a curious high school junior in 1987, Phillips says, he went to the Cumming town square to see what the large crowd forming was all about and soon found himself in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally.
“It was kind of like a horror movie,” he said. “I had always known there were some racists in the county, but suddenly they were parading around with nooses on the town square where I had gotten school supplies every September. … So I wanted to get away from there, because I was pretty shocked.”
County acknowledgment a work in progress
Today, in a show of progress, the county has made significant steps to grapple with its past. A historical marker now sits in the same town square where Edwards’s body was once hanged. A new elementary school, named New Hope, opened in August to honor the former African American schools in the region. And in recent years, members of the community have held various panels about the 1912 lynching.
But where some have embraced the county’s past evils in attempts to chart a better path forward, others have tried to ignore the history altogether.
“It’s like two different trains on two different tracks,” Phillips said. “Progress is happening in one area, and at the same time things are going in reverse in another, all in the same place. And that's Forsyth County.”
Before Phillips’s book was published in 2016, residents say few people in and around Forsyth knew exactly why it wasn’t a welcome place for Black people. There was a kind of unspoken agreement, especially for Black Georgians, that the county remained for whites only because of tensions from the 1987 march, but there was nothing concrete until the book put everything in perspective. Even so, a large portion of the population doesn't know about the county’s history.
“A lot of people know something bad happened in 1912, but they don’t know exactly what it was,” longtime Forsyth resident Durwood Snead, a former pastor, told Yahoo News. “I think the average person doesn’t know it all.”
Now groups like Leadership Forsyth, made up of volunteers from the community who promote diversity through educational experiences, have made headway in distilling the previous harm in the county by carrying out various projects like cleaning public parks, renovating community rooms and creating a mobile food pantry. One of the group's most visible projects, completed in 2022, was the restoration of the Tolbert Street Cemetery, a former African American cemetery first used as a family burial ground in the mid-1800s before the site housed the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church until 1912. It remains unclear whether the church that was once built on the property was burned down.
A dedicated group of six pastors, including Snead, also began a scholarship last year for the descendants of Black Forsythians who were forced from their homes. In getting buy-in from the community, because the four-year $10,000 annual scholarships are entirely donation-based, Snead made it clear that it’s “not a handout, it’s love.” In its first year the scholarship already had nine recipients, including Osby’s grandson.
“The truth sets everyone free,” Snead, co-founder of the African American Descendants of Forsyth County Scholarship, said. “We need to learn about the past so we can do something different for the future.”
He recalls having to tell skeptical residents, “This is not reparations. If we can show an act of love to give people hope and show others to do the same, then it’s great.”
Snead, who moved to Forsyth in 1989, says it has seen growth. He recalls only 14 Black people living in the county of 42,000 people back then. More than three decades later, the county has ballooned to nearly a quarter of a million. Its evolution in that time, Snead says, is in part due to the fact that in the 1980s just 10% “outsiders,” or those without generations in the area, lived in Forsyth, compared with 90% “outsiders” today.
“When we moved here in 1989, it was the country — a rural area of Atlanta,” he said. “It’s grown like crazy with everything, and diversity along with it. … It’s changed in every way.”
But for many residents the progress has been moderate at best. In the Cumming town center, merely 30 feet away from the placards acknowledging the 1912 lynching, sits a harrowing statue of Hiram Parks Bell, a Confederate leader, slave owner and, as Phillips wrote, “unrepentant white supremacist.” And in recent years, stories of local middle school students sharing lynching references and racial epithets, and a Black mom mysteriously found dead after a party with white women, summon up feelings of an old Forsyth divided by race.
“There are a lot of markers that remind people historically of what this county is,” Daniel Blackman, a leader in the Black community of Forsyth, told Yahoo News, adding that the county’s challenges mainly stem from a failure to uniformly address the past.
The land the county sits on today was inhabited by Cherokee Indians until its founding in 1832, when it was named after John Forsyth, a 19th century politician and slave owner.
Blackman in 2016 was the first Black person to run for office in Forsyth. He lost his bid for the Georgia state Senate, but he says he was encouraged by moments of solace while campaigning. Like when a Donald Trump supporter from the community thanked him for merely knocking on his door, saying that no one else had ever taken the time to show they cared about his vote. Eventually, Blackman’s sign was affixed on the man’s lawn next to a Trump sign.
In April 2022, Blackman was appointed by President Biden as EPA administrator for the Southeast.
Understanding the challenges of the community, Blackman moved to Forsyth in 2013 in hopes of being a big part of the change.
“I came intentionally because I had three Black boys at the time. Now I have a daughter,” he said, noting that he made his presence known with several countywide organizations.
“I knew the history of 1987. I knew the history of 1912. … I moved because I felt like if we’re going to be a transformative community, we needed to be present and we needed to open doors that, quite frankly, weren't being opened, and have conversations that might make people uncomfortable.”
He acknowledges that the small number of Black residents in the county have come for varying reasons.
“Some Black folks are up here because they can afford it,” he said. “Some Black folks are up here because of the school district. And then other Black folks moved here because they are blending in, and for whatever personal reasons they have. … The challenge I've had from the time I've been in Forsyth County as it relates to the history is that 90% of people think that if you stop talking about it, it'll go away.
“At the end of the day, there has to be something said about how things come together and unfold over time and how you choose to deal with it,” he said.
What students are taught
Blackman believes that if it were not for his own teachings within the home, his children would not be as knowledgeable of the Black history that has taken place in their own backyard — something critics, including students, have raised concerns about in the past.
Damian Galvan, a politically active high school student in Forsyth County, wrote a guest column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2021 imploring the district to teach more about the county’s racist past instead of trying to ignore it.
“Forsyth County has been notorious for its historic racism,” he wrote. “Many people suggest times have changed since then, but the consequences of not teaching the impact of the past on the present say otherwise.” He pointed to an incident in 2020 in which a student drove by a crowd protesting police brutality and yelled racially insensitive rhetoric.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability; rather, it moves in the chambers of our county’s Board of Education, channels through crowds that engage in peaceful protest,” Galvan wrote.
The county’s education centers enroll about 54,000 students across 42 public schools, including the elementary school whose name pays tribute to African American schools that were in Forsyth before its Black residents were expelled. Just over 53% of students are students of colors and 47% white, according to the district.
In schools, K-12 students across Georgia learn about history, or social studies, through the Georgia Standards of Excellence, which, according to Forsyth’s education website, prepare students to be “informed citizens who will engage and compete in a global environment.”
K-5 students learn about the foundations of America through the study of “important American holidays and symbols.” In grades 6-8, students begin to learn about world history and colonialism and to tackle basic concepts about government and civic understanding. It’s not until the eighth grade that they begin to focus on Georgia history, including its geography and the role of its government. What exactly Forsyth children learn in school as it relates to the history of the county remains somewhat unclear.
Jennifer Caracciolo, chief communications officer for the county’s school district, told Yahoo News that there are things teachers can and can’t talk about “due to CRT,” or critical race theory — an educational movement that aims to contextualize recent and historical events in a framework of systemic racism. Last April, Georgia joined a number of Republican-led states to ban what many called “divisive” teachings about racism.
"Here in Georgia, our classrooms will not be pawns to those who indoctrinate our kids with their partisan political agendas," Republican Gov. Brian Kemp said at a bill-signing ceremony in Cumming that month.
But it only led to more tension within the county.
Later in the spring of 2022, many white Forsyth parents accused the school board of attempting to “indoctrinate” their children by teaching about diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s the same conflict that played out at dozens of school board meetings nationwide, where mostly conservative grassroots parental organizations brought up GOP talking points.
“Please get back to just teaching our children math, science, factual history, equity of opportunity, and teach them how to think and not what to think,” one parent said at a Forsyth board meeting in 2021.
In the district’s defense, Caracciolo said, “We focus on what makes people different and celebrate that in our school system,” but she deferred to the county school site for specific questions about the curriculum. She added that new teachers learn about what they can and cannot teach from lessons that county and educational leaders create and upload to YouTube.
Forsyth Superintendent Jeff Bearden, whose cabinet is made up of 13 officials, all white, did not respond to Yahoo News’ request for comment.
Despite growing numbers of students of color in the county, many parents like Blackman say that for students to learn accurate Black history, the teaching often has to happen at home, not in the schools.
“There are teachers in Forsyth County that I'm very proud of that have utilized Black History Month and Juneteenth and other times within the year to address these issues and to participate and bring their students,” he said. “But when I look at my children and I look at other people's children, I can't point to two or three things within the school system that I can say, ‘Here are things that the schools have done that have made me feel better.’ I can't say that.”
Teachers like Jolie Creuser of Lambert High School in Forsyth, according to Phillips, have proposed a curriculum about the county's racial history, to no avail.
“Nothing in its history has impacted Forsyth County as deeply and uniquely as the events of 1912,” Creuser told Forsyth County News. “In a matter of months, a series of events culminating with the attack and death of Mae Crow, the lynching of Rob Edwards, and the execution of Ernest Knox and Oscar Daniels led to the nearly complete expulsion of an entire race of people from Forsyth County.”
For Phillips, it’s disappointing but not surprising.
“All I ever wanted to do was get out of this place [because of the racism], and then I wrote a book that had to be right back in it,” he said. “I would love it if the county embraced this history and became known as this model to move on from it.”
Yahoo News reached out to nearly two dozen current and former teachers and principals across the county’s elementary, middle and high schools but did not hear back.
For different residents in Forsyth, change doesn’t always look the same.
“This county has changed so much, and it’s because of the school system,” Pirkle said. “We have the best school system in the state. … It’s because the people who have moved in, in the past 20-25 years — there are different kinds of people.”
According to Caracciolo, the county school district is proud to be the largest employer in Forsyth and makes it a point to “recruit people from all kinds of backgrounds.”
But there is still a cautious effort to curtail the reality of Forsyth’s history.
“There is a fear that the way history is taught about African American and Native American people will show the county as an evil place,” Snead said. “People are afraid that history will be remembered in just one day.”
A long history of racial strife
Since 1912, incidents of racial animus in Forsyth County have continued to surface, particularly in the last five decades.
In 1968, 10 Black schoolchildren and their camp counselors at a Forsyth campground were surrounded by a group of white men yelling racial slurs and taunting them until they left.
Twelve years later, in 1980, a Black firefighter, Miguel Marcelli, attended a company picnic at a campground with his girlfriend when two white men stalked them after the sun went down, eventually shooting Marcelli in the head.
Following the 1987 march, a young Oprah Winfrey brought her new talk show to Forsyth to hear from residents about why the county remained all white.
One white man said it was because Black people didn’t care about the way they kept their spaces. A white woman said Black people could live wherever they want, particularly among white people, but added, “We have the right to choose if we want a white community if we want to. That’s why we moved here.”
One white woman called out the danger of such rhetoric, saying that someone was going to die if it continued. “Black and white together. That’s how it’s supposed to be,” she said.
Phillips recalls, “One of the things Oprah said when she left in ’87 was, ‘A lot of white people in this community are afraid of other white people.’ And I couldn't believe how dead-on she was. That was exactly our experience. We were afraid to speak out. And that's part of how it all got perpetuated, is even the dissenters were afraid.
“The fundamental question is, with all that prosperity in north Georgia, who gets to partake of it?” he added. “Who benefits and who's cut out?”
The future of Forsyth
The future is what both county leaders and residents want it to become. Serious efforts have been made to put the past in context, but more work remains.
In addition to the 14% Asian American population, 10% of the county is Hispanic, with many coming there for opportunity, which includes jobs, quality education and lower taxes. But for Black residents, that opportunity has waned in Forsyth, as the population has never surpassed 5% since 1912. By comparison, the Black population in Alpharetta, Ga., located just outside of Forsyth over the Fulton County line, is more than 12%.
In many ways, parts of Forsyth County represent the striking differences between the recent Georgia Senate foes: Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, an astute politician and pastor with evolved, progressive views, and Republican Herschel Walker, a sports titan living off history and traditionalist values to uphold the status quo.
“Raphael Warnock is very much a part of the intellectual Black history of Atlanta, including the struggle,” Phillips said. “Whereas Herschel Walker essentially appeases a lot of white folks with exactly the kind of amnesia they would prefer.”
After all, it’s the county where hard-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene grew up, got educated and first began to make a name for herself.
But as President Biden said Thursday, ahead of the screening of the movie “Till” — about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose 1955 lynching changed the trajectory of the civil rights movement — “History matters.”
“We should know everything about our history, and that’s what great nations do.”
County advocates like Blackman believe in the greatness the community harbors, but push back on any illusion that history should be diluted for consumption, particularly based on how it may make younger and older generations of white people feel.
“How are we measuring our progress?” Blackman asks. “I just think that people are more apt about the optics of it, versus being realistic that if one more really big racial incident happens in Forsyth County, Ga., between now and the next five years, it pushes us right back to 1987.”
“That's what I don't think most of the influential white Forsythian population understands,” he said. “If we don't start to teach our children now to address the issues, then we are gonna become the narrative that people paint, because we haven't addressed it.”